Roger Keen on Metacrime and Metahorror
Roger’s new novel Literary Stalker is a psychological crime thriller with horror overtones, but it’s also metafictional — that is, it has self-awareness about its fictionality — and Roger has used the terms ‘metacrime’ and ‘metahorror’ to describe this tendency within the genres the novel occupies. So, we thought we’d ask him explain a little bit more deeply about what he means, and give us some other examples.
Darkness Visible: Literary Stalker involves Nick, a writer who is composing a novel about revenge murders. Is it this layering of novels-within-novels that gives rise to the meta dimension you talk about? And how is this different from a novel taking place in the real world, as oppose to a fantasy, for example?
Roger: Yes, the layering is part of it, certainly, but only one aspect. And Nick indeed does inhabit the ‘real world’, but that ‘reality’ is constantly being called into question by what he does and thinks. As an ‘unreliable narrator’ Nick is in a league of his own! He’s writing his novel — The Facebook Murders — where the characters are effectively his real enemies (he even keeps the same names for the purposes of a first draft), and he gets his alter ego narrator, Jago, to murder them in stylised ways, as in the movie Theatre of Blood.
So his novel is a projection of his wishes, a realisation of the revenge he desires in real life. And as the story progresses, the lines blur, fiction and reality interchange, as Nick is progressively ‘taken over’ by his novel. Which is a very ‘horror’ idea, but because it’s ‘psychological’ rather than ‘supernatural’, it still retains ‘real world’ integrity — at least for most of the time. But throughout there are these ‘nudge-wink’ moments, and towards the end the metafictional undermining and rug-pulling gets stronger, till the twists at the climax which leave you wondering what exactly is ‘real’ and what isn’t.
Darkness Visible: How did you come to write a metafictional novel? Have you been a fan of this type of writing for a long time?
Roger: I have. Several of the novels I liked in my youth are metafictional, for example Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, which you could call ‘meta-science fictional’. Here the layering involves a hierarchy of levels of science fiction, plus autobiography, ranging from the real fire-bombing of Dresden to slipping in time and contacting alien civilisations. Vonnegut followed that with Breakfast of Champions, yet more metafictional and featuring himself as creator of his own alter ego writer, Kilgore Trout. Then there’s John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, where the author self-consciously comments on his pastiche of a Victorian novel.
That novel has alternative endings, which is a strong element in metafiction. Another example is Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two-Birds, which states that a good book may have three dissimilar openings and a hundred times as many endings, and goes on to illustrate that proposal. And I must mention the work of Richard Brautigan, a metafictionist who was huge in the 1970s but whose reputation has sadly declined since. In A Confederate General From Big Sur, he espouses O’Brien’s principle of multiple endings, actually rounding off that novel with 186,000 endings per second!
But to get back to Literary Stalker, there’s another metafictional Brautigan novel — Sombrero Fallout — that was a direct influence. It contains a novel-within-a-novel, which the writer protagonist tears up and throws in the waste bin. But the novel in the bin, which is about a sombrero, assumes a life of its own and carries on developing, writing itself, eventually becoming something huge, a massive cause celebre, involving mayhem, hysteria and bloodshed on an industrial scale. When I planned my novel-within-the-novel, The Facebook Murders, I only had very sketchy ideas about how that would proceed, but in the writing it really took on a life of its own, kind of decided its own parameters and went hurtling on to a massive showdown seemingly of its own choosing. And I was strongly reminded of the sombrero story in Sombrero Fallout, and this feeling that stories can have a life of their own and maybe can even write themselves!
Darkness Visible: What about ‘metacrime’ and ‘metahorror’ specifically?
Roger: Well, within the tradition of metafiction, the detective story is often used — because of its inherent focus on plotting within the framing plot of the work itself. Take for example Jorge Luis Borges’ story ‘Death and the Compass’ which involves a detective applying impeccable meta-reasoning to foretell the time and place of an impending murder — but he fails to grasp one important detail till too late: he is the actual victim!
And there are many examples in the works of other highbrow metafictional writers, including Vladimir Nabokov (Pale Fire, The Gift); Alain Robbe-Grillet (The Erasers, Project for a Revolution in New York); Paul Auster (The New York Trilogy); and Martin Amis (London Fields). But one particular ‘metacrime’ novel that has long fascinated fans of postmodern detective fiction is The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor by ‘Cameron McCabe’, where the author himself is a character — and murder suspect — who uses layered texts, deconstruction and rug-pulling to further complicate the ‘real’ mystery — if there ever was such a thing.
The aforementioned are all literary, fairly intellectual examples of the ‘meta’ tendency, but it cropped up notably in the pop culture of the horror movie with Wes Craven’s Scream series in the 1990s. Here the characters are self-aware and constantly remarking about horror conventions and tropes as they proceed, but the frights and unexpected jolts still have to be real to maintain the plot tension and counterbalance the nudge-winkery. You get a similar thing in Quentin Tarantino’s films; they are at the same time pastiches and effective genre movies in their own right. And Tarantino was a big influence on Literary Stalker. One of the staged murders in The Facebook Murders is a pastiche of Reservoir Dogs, and the underlying serial revenge theme owes a lot to the Kill Bill films as well as Theatre of Blood.
Moving on to metahorror in book form, a marvellous example is the first story in Joe Hill’s collection 20th Century Ghosts. I include Joe as ‘himself’ in Literary Stalker, alluding to the time I met him at a convention in 2006, when he was just emerging onto the scene and I bought that collection and read that first story upstairs in my hotel room.
‘Best New Horror’ is flesh-creepingly brilliant in a way so many horror stories are not! A world-weary horror anthologist — who knows all the horror angles and tropes, as in the Scream series — tracks down the elusive writer of a bizarre, transgressive and ultra-violent story he wants to publish, and — you’ve guessed it! — finds himself literally descending into a horror story himself — sucked in inexorably by his own fear. It is an outstanding, completely successful horror piece whilst being self-knowingly stereotypical, which is no mean feat. And that self-knowledge marks it out as ‘metahorror’ as much as the nested narratives — inner story and framing story.
Darkness Visible: In Literary Stalker you make great play about what is supposedly factual and what is made-up or fictional. You start with a disclaimer, as the real author, and then Nick comes on stage and completely undermines that in the first paragraph! People are going to wonder just how much real life there is in the text, taken from your own experience, and how much is made up. For instance, have you had any spats and fallings out with other writers such as Nick describes?
Roger: Ah, the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question! Well, it’s all made up in the sense that the characters are inventions and not portraits of real people — unlike in The Facebook Murders — and the events are all largely fabricated too, or at least nothing happened quite in the way I portray in the story…
For the record, I’ve never received a bad review from a critic that made my blood boil, or had disparaging remarks made about me on Facebook, or had a story accepted and then never published — like Nick. But some of the material is taken from life. For example, the term ‘kamikaze writer’ came from a conversation I once had with an editor about writers who argue and remonstrate after they’ve been rejected. And ‘tadpole writer’ was actually coined by a critic — myself, as it happens! I put it in a review and thought it ‘clever’ at the time; but a couple of months on, when I saw it finally reproduced in print, it came across differently, and I thought: That was a bitchy thing to say.
Darkness Visible: So that was a lesson for you?
Roger: It was! It taught me to tread more carefully as a critic. Another phase I use in Literary Stalker is ‘horror-wanker’ writer, and that too came from discussions at conventions or on message boards, alluding to the bottom-of-the-barrel-type writers who churn out clichéd rubbish — usually ultra-violent or sexual or both — and become the bane of editors’ lives by submitting it for publication. When that particular term is levelled at Nick, it’s very much ‘the final straw’.
Darkness Visible: So, despite any metafictional games and tricksy convolutions in the text, the emotions remain true?
Roger: Absolutely. The emotions must always remain true, and that has to be the touchstone of naturalistic fiction, metafiction, science fiction, fantasy or whatever. If not it won’t work.
Darkness Visible: Thank you, Roger, for making the ‘meta’ world a bit clearer!
Roger: Thank you, too, Matt!
Literary Stalker is available as a paperback and on Kindle Unlimited on Amazons worldwide. For more information, please visit: Darkness Visible.